Carmella de los Angeles Guiol, “Gringa”

Kristen cupped her hands around the tiny green hummingbird and carefully untangled its feathers from the netting. Opening her palms slightly, she inspected the bird. His heart shuddered hard, as if it was going to beat right out of its chest.

“Nice! A purple-chested hummingbird!” her research partner Matt said, reaching for the field guide. “We haven’t seen many of those.”

She always felt like she was dealing with pure magic anytime she handled a hummingbird. There was something so delicate and unreal about them, like they belonged only in the pages of fairytales. But there was much about the rainforest that made her feel this way—strangler figs that swallowed entire trees, horned beetles the size of her hand, alien-like flowers with colors that didn’t exist anywhere else.

“Wing span?” Matt’s pencil hovered over the gridded log book.

Kristen opened the hummingbird’s wings and held them against the wooden ruler.

“Eight centimeters,” she said, turning the bird’s body lengthwise.  “Tail to beak, five centimeters.” A drop of sweat wriggled down her arm but she ignored it.

“Weight?”

Kristen placed the hummingbird into a small cage attached to a hanging scale and waited for the numbers to settle.

“Four grams.”

“Got it,” Matt said. “Any important markings?”

“Lots of teal on the shoulders. Mark it down as male.” Kristen pulled out a thin plastic band to loop around the bird’s claw.

“Alright. What’s the number on the tracking band?”

“6170,” Kristen said. “Is that it?”

Matt inspected the columns in the log book. “Yeah, looks good.”

Kristen walked a few paces away and opened up the cage. “Goodbye, little friend,” she whispered as the hummingbird disappeared into the dense forest with two beats of its shiny wings.

She smiled as she listened to the rainforest’s wild song of crickets, toucans, and hidden tree frogs. It amazed her that she could feel safe and full of joy in a place like this, a place so unlike the concrete city where she’d lived for all twenty years of her life. All she knew was that the anxiety that plagued her back in the States had melted away after one day of being at the research station. Even the quality of her dreams was different here. Every night brought Technicolor bursts of mystery and madness, as if to keep up with the explosions of life and color she was experiencing every day in the field.

While they waited for the next bird to get caught in their net, Matt studied the tropical bird field guide, taking notes in the margin and folding down pages. He and Kristen were the only students from their university’s biology department to receive the coveted grant that funded a summer of field work in Ecuador’s Quilombo rainforest.

Meanwhile, Kristen wiped the rainforest dew off of their instruments and daydreamed about Domingo. Today was his birthday and she wanted to get him the perfect gift. If only they could sneak away to El Torro de Amor, the Tower of Love that she had heard so much about, and spend a night making love high in the trees.

“Shit!” Matt yelped, jumping up from his stool. “Something bit me!”

“Where?” Kristen said.

“My arm!” Matt said, rubbing his left shoulder.

Kristen stood up to inspect the red spot. “Probably a spider,” she said, reaching for the first aid kit.

“Thanks,” Matt said as Kristen dotted anti-itch cream on the growing bite. “You’re becoming Ms. Jane of the Jungle, aren’t you?”

“Not really,” she said, spreading the cream evenly.

“Seriously. You seem to have taken a real interest in this whole rainforest thing.”

Kristen’s cheeks flushed. “You need to be more aware of your surroundings, that’s all.”

“Yeah,” Matt said. “There are lots of things that can hurt you out here.”

She kept her attention focused on the ointment she was applying to his arm, but her heart raced inside her chest. Did Matt know about her and Domingo? They’d been careful not to be too obvious about their daily rendezvous’—her university had a strict policy prohibiting sexual relations with the locals—but perhaps Matt had seen them sneaking down to the river one afternoon.

Domingo was one of los guardabosques, the local men hired as park rangers to maintain the ecological reserve. He was built like the legendary jaguar that made this rainforest its home, his toffee skin stretching across a beautiful collection of bones and sinew.

Together, they cobbled a language out of sweat and spit, occasionally sharing words in her elementary Spanish and his stunted English. Kristen learned that he was from Santa Clara, the closest village to Quilombo, which was still four hours away by foot; no vehicle could make it out here in the rainy season, when the orange clay turned to mud and threatened to swallow horses whole. Down by the river, he caught fish with his bare hands and lifted lacy ferns to show her where the bats slept during daylight hours. She watched the way his mouth moved with each rolling ‘r’ and soft ‘ñ’, traced her finger across his honey lips.

Passion lived like a coiled snake in every part of Domingo—in his silky Spanish, in the way he wielded his machete and stroked the strings on his beat-up guitar. Nothing like the guys she’d been with back at school, the ones who would much rather discuss Heidegger than make her scream with pleasure, her body bent over a moss-covered rock. There was a hunger in the way Domingo ripped off her clothes every afternoon, as if the novelty of her breasts, her butt, her blond hair never wore off.

Kristen hadn’t told anyone at the research station about her and Domingo, especially not Matt, who always seemed to be staring at her whenever she looked up from her dinner plate. She felt like a grownup engaging in a romantic relationship without the constant guidance of her well-meaning but clueless friends back at school. None of them knew what it was like to be with a real man like Domingo. All they knew was college boy bullshit—texting, not texting, terrible drunk sex.

Back at the research station a few hours later, Kristen stopped by the kitchen where Rosita was washing a giant metal pot.

“You’re back from the field early,” the cook said in Spanish.

“Yeah, Matt got a nasty bite on his arm,” Kristen responded in English. “We weren’t getting very many birds today anyway.”

Bueno, you can help me with preparations for Domingo’s birthday then.”

Kristen’s body tensed at the mention of her lover’s name.

“Um, pues, es que, no se…” She stammered to find her words, avoiding Rosita’s gaze.

“We need fresh flowers for the tables,” Rosita continued, drying the enormous pot with a ragged dish towel. “Maybe some hojas de platano. Lo que sea. See what you can find.”

Grateful for an excuse to leave the kitchen, Kristen grabbed a machete from the porch and headed towards the woodshop. Last time she had walked that way, the path had been overrun with sprays of fuchsia blossoms. Feeling light, she decided to take a detour through the orquidário.

“Hey,” Matt said, stepping onto the muddy path.

“Shit!” Kristen dropped her machete on the ground. “You scared me.”

“Sorry,” he said, picking it up. “You headed down to the woodshop?”

“What? Oh. No, just doing some stuff for Rosita.”

“I can give you a hand.”

“No, no, I’ll be fine.” Kristen grabbed the machete from his hand. “You should be resting after this morning.”

“I’m doing much better,” he said. “Thanks to you and your healing hands.”

“Sure thing!” Kristen stepped past him and continued down the path, leaving Matt alone, massaging the place on his left arm where she’d nursed his spider bite.

The orquidário was a swath of forest with just the right humidity and cool temperatures to maintain some of the region’s rarest species. The ceiba trees grew thick here, their buttressed roots lifting like the feet of giants, and little sunlight filtered through the dense canopy. This was Domingo’s baby. He had been the one to fasten each orchid to a tree trunk with a handful of moss and a slip of burlap, and he was the only person who could name each one, no matter how strange or long the name.

Kristen unhooked the spray bottle hanging from a branch and began spritzing the orchids, which seemed to brighten and lift with each whisper of water. She marveled at the way the petals evolved from cream-colored to a burst of magenta in the center, or from Easter egg blue to a knot of sungold yellow. Some of the orchids were barely anything at all, just a few naked shoots protruding from their tangled burlap nests. But she knew that even something this ordinary had the potential to produce the most breathtaking blooms.

As she went from tree to tree, orchid to orchid, her mind meandered into the future, to a time when Domingo might teach the names of these rare plants to a curious child with her green eyes and his chocolate curls. A man who cared this much about the delicate lives of orchids would make a marvelous father, she thought, spritzing the last of the flower buds. She only had one year left of undergrad, and it wouldn’t be hard to turn her research on endemic hummingbirds into a PhD project.

An open flower grazed against the back of Kristen’s neck, and she couldn’t help but quiver at the touch of its soft skin. With a satisfied sigh, she hung up the spray bottle and continued her task of collecting decorations for the birthday party.

Back in the dining room, Kristen took great care in arranging the flowers she’d collected around the research station—blossoms of deep purple, bright fuschia, soft periwinkle—livening up the concrete structure that kept the wildness of the rainforest at bay.

The guardabosques should be coming back from the forest any time now, Kristen thought. Then Domingo would go down to the river and wait for her by la catarata. Maybe she’d find a way to get to the waterfall first so that he’d find her naked amidst the ferns.

Cuando termines,” Rosita called from the kitchen. “When you’re all done, you can help me bake la torta de coco.”

Esta bien,” she called back, wondering how she was going to find a way to get down to the river without Rosita noticing.

Once she was finished with the décor, she went to the pantry where Rosita was gathering the ingredients for the cake.

Lla termine las empanadas de maduro y queso,” the tiny brown woman said, heaving a sack of flour into Kristen’s arms. “Domingo’s favorite.”

Kristen’s mouth watered at the thought; empanadas with sweet plantains and cheese would be a welcome break from the black beans and rice that Kristen had eaten every single day since she’d been at Quilombo.

“So, how old is he turning?” Kristen asked carrying the flour into the kitchen.

“Who? Domingo? Bueno, he must be over thirty by now.”

“Over thirty! Really?” She’d guessed him to be in his mid-twenties. Was he really a decade older than her?

“I mean, his oldest has to be around twelve by now,” Rosita said, wiping down the counter.

“His oldest?”

“Yeah, Miguelito.” Kristen felt her spit turn to sawdust.  Rosita continued. “Let’s see. There’s Miguelito, and then Francisco.”

“How many—” Kristen started to speak, but her vision blurred; beneath her feet, the earth gave way to nothingness.

“And then there’s Rocio y Veronica, las jemelas. Adorable angelitas, those girls.” Kristen nodded her head vigorously, trying to blink away the sting from her eyes, her throat, her hummingbird heart. “He must be excited about seeing them soon. This is Domingo’s birthday party but it’s also his despedida. His month is almost over, and we always try to throw a little going away party when the guardabosques head back home. That’s how it works around here. Two lives. Adentro y afuera.”

Kristen had heard this from the other guardabosques. Their life inside and outside the rainforest. Right now they were adentro, inside the world of nature at its wildest. She had been so consumed with life at the research station—hummingbirds and their feverish heartbeats, banana trees towering like cathedrals over her head, orgasms beneath slick waterfalls—that the world outside this rainforest, afuera, had faded away from her memory. She had seen other park rangers come and go; why hadn’t she assumed the same would stand for Domingo?

“I need to go—to the bathroom.” Kristen tripped on her way out of the dining room and stumbled down the steps towards the composting toilet. When she reached the wooden cabin, she threw open the door and sat on the seat, her whole body buzzing with white hot fire. With a hand on each knee, she tried to stop her legs from shaking, tried to remember the breathing exercises she’d learned in yoga class back home.

But her mind was scrambling to put together the pieces in the aftermath of the earthquake that Rosita’s words had just set off. Four kids at home? Twin baby girls? A son that was twelve years old? She was closer to his son’s age than to Domingo’s.

He’d disarmed her with fresh coconut meat, tender and cool on her tongue, and late-night ballads on the guitar, songs about “Corazon de melon” and “te quiero tanto tanto tanto.” I love you so much so much so much.

It came to her like a flash of lightning: she was just another gringa to him, some blond girl to suck his dick while he was far from home.

The world became a green blur as she crashed through the underbrush towards the orquidário. Once inside the cool cathedral of ceibas, she worked methodically, ripping carefully fastened orchids from the tree trunk that held them. If it weren’t for the tree root that brought her to her knees, Kristen might have left the entire place in ruins.

Staring at the helpless plant in her clutched fist, she remembered her research grant, her advisor and the recommendations she needed him to write for graduate school. But she couldn’t stay in Quilombo. She’d fake malaria, a death in the family, whatever she needed to do to be free from this place.

She tied the squished orchid to its tree and stepped over the others on her way back to the main house. Back in her room, Kristen gathered her notebooks and water-wicking clothes into her North Face backpack and left Quilombo in the falling darkness without a word to anyone.

 

 

 

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